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Building a Better Teen on ‘Better Things’

If there’s one thing on which we can all agree, it’s that TV teens are typically terrible. That’s finally changing with Max, the mold-breaking on-screen avatar adolescents deserve.

FX
FX

Recent events have reminded us that there’s no shortage of people and principles that half of Americans hate. If there’s one thing the whole divided country can hate, though, it’s the TV teenager. Angsty, surly, and perpetually stealing screen time from more compelling plot lines, the TV teen is the scourge of spectators from both blue and red states.

TV teens come in two types of terrible. There’s the generically angry, rebellious teen whose every action and expression is governed by biology. He or she glowers, sulks, and slams doors in almost every scene, as if to announce, Yes, I have hormones. These TV teens are so irredeemable that a showrunner can kill them without sentiment or ceremony. Consider Chris from Fear the Walking Dead, who crashes his car and crawls away from the wreckage with a leg bone breaking his skin, only to be executed (in a flashback, no less) by his uncompassionate companions in the hit-or-miss series’ most satisfying scene. And don’t forget Finn from Homeland, the vice president’s son whose karmic debt from a hit-and-run cover-up gets paid when he’s presumed to be blown up at his father’s memorial service. No one was sorry to see those guys go.

The second group of terrible teens encompasses cases — Dana from Homeland, Walt Jr./Flynn from Breaking Bad, Paige from The Americans, Grace from The Good Wife — where it’s not the portrayal that rankles so much as the character’s plot-disrupting presence in hour-long, high-concept dramas that aren’t always well suited to telling more personal, smaller-scale stories. It’s great that they’re feeling the first stirrings of burgeoning love lives or suffering the first flickers of adult disillusionment, but it would be even better if they could do so in a way that wouldn’t take away time from the spy story or court case we actually care about. As a Daily Mail caption put it in 2013, “Dana is less beloved than her father Nicholas Brody, who is a terrorist.”

We’ve waited a while for a more-than-tolerable TV teen who’s not from Freaks and Geeks, and this season, she’s finally surfaced. Max, the eldest daughter of a lightly fictionalized Pamela Adlon in FX’s latest Comedy About Comedians, Better Things, is the on-screen avatar adolescents deserve.

Better Things, the Adlon/Louis C.K. co-creation that finished its first season Thursday night and has already been renewed, broke more than one mold in its 10-episode run. If Homeland and its copycats showed that women are equally capable of playing the troubled and badly behaved leads who gave men many of the medium’s meatiest roles from The Sopranos through Breaking Bad, Better Things proves they can carry a show without jazz freakouts or pinning paper to corkboard. Adlon’s Sam, a 50-ish single mom, has as much on her plate as any CIA operative: She’s an actor, a caretaker, a friend, and a flirt, and finding time for each occupation makes her slightly worse than she wants to be at the rest of those roles.

The semi-serialized show gives ample time to actresses ranging in age from 9-year-old Olivia Edward (as Duke, Sam’s youngest) to 64-year-old Celia Imrie (as Phyllis, Sam’s eccentric mother). No male character has appeared in more than three episodes, and the only one to top two episodes (Max’s kind-of-crush) exists only to test and strengthen the Sam-and-Max bond. Most of the men in Better Things — an uninvolved ex-husband, an obnoxious blind date, a casual fling — are distant, insignificant satellites orbiting the family nucleus. We see them in the checks Sam signs, in the sexts she ignores, and in an old hook-up she daydreams about; we hear them on the other line during one-way phone sex, finishing solo while Sam drives and checks call waiting because it could be her kids. Often, they aren’t there at all: Episode 3 starts with what looks like a shot from the perspective of a man having sex with Sam, but one quick cut later, it’s clear that she’s plunging a toilet.

FX
FX

For all that empowerment — the finale’s dedication, “to my daughters,” seems particularly poignant this week — constructing a teen we can care about might be the Better Things feat with the greatest degree of difficulty. Mikey Madison, the 17-year-old Angeleno who plays Max, hasn’t been in the business that long; between her uncredited acting debut in the background of a Doritos ad and her current prominent part, her IMDb page lists only three projects, all shorts. Even so, she’s done enough auditions to know what the typical opening for her age group looks like. “When there’s a character and it says she’s bratty and obsessed with her cellphone, I’m kind of like, ‘Oh no,’” Madison says.

In Episode 6, we see Sam at work, playing the wife on a pilot for a mainstream, multicam sitcom. It’s a scene from the life of a traditional TV family — husband, wife, school-aged son and daughter — and she’s stuck in the kitchen, fixing food for her son, a stereotypical sulker. “I don’t eat lunch,” he frowns with an over-it sigh, seconds before spitting a “Whatever, dad.” It’s the TV teen in his unnatural habitat. Later, the actor playing the son gets fired from the pilot, and Sam’s attempts to console him flesh out what looked like a one-note role. The contrast between the son-on-the-sitcom and the son Sam observes off set might as well be the show’s mission statement: Like other narratively rewarding FX efforts (Louie, Atlanta), Better Things builds a firm foundation by mining material vignettes that more rigid shows wouldn’t consider camera-worthy.

The five pages of dialogue Madison read before her Better Things audition were enough to tell her that Max’s moods weren’t just pituitary pique, which made her desperate to play the part. “The character was described as someone who’s very zero to a hundred,” Madison says. “I’m so protective over her, so I don’t like to describe her as whiny or bratty.” Instead, she prefers “outspoken and unabashed,” adding that “even though it may come across as bratty, it comes from a really sensitive and kind of innocent place.”

Max has her moments of Dana-esque indignation, but Madison’s over-the-top take on teen exasperation turns what could be tiresome repeats of past tantrums into some of the funniest scenes on any series this season. Each caustic comment comes this close to caricature, pulled back from the brink by a quaver in her voice that hints at enough hardship to inspire some sympathy. “Everything affects her so deeply, and she feels so strongly about everything, that her immediate reaction is to just put every ounce of energy and vulnerability into her voice,” Madison says.

Crucially, there’s more to Max than those aggrieved exchanges. In Episode 5, for instance, her stone-faced façade slips to reveal that her aimless life makes her as anxious as it sometimes makes Sam.

In a tender follow-up scene, Sam takes Max shopping, buys her a suit, and tells her she’ll figure out her future (as much as anyone can). But by the next episode, they’re fighting again, which feels true to the tumultuous teenage experience. “People are watching these sitcoms and they’re like, ‘Oh, after Episode 5 she’s gonna be super nice and like nice to her mom and be a perfect teenager and everything’s going to be happy now,’” Madison says. “I think it’s kind of like a reality check.”

As misguided as some of Max’s blow-ups can be, there are times when she’s able to see Sam’s good intentions through her more forgiving friends’ eyes, and other times when she’s the cast’s most perceptive character. The season is bookended by two steps in the development of Sam’s middle daughter, Frankie, who gets her period in Episode 2 and wrestles with gender-identity issues in the finale. After being sent home for using the boys’ bathroom, Frankie spins an innocent story about why she was there, which Sam swallows. Max sees through it, and her caring-but-no-B.S. message — “Frankie’s a boy” — makes Sam stop avoiding the truth.

Real-life Madison seems much more put together than Max. Her parents are clinical psychologists, which she credits with making her more emotionally mature; she’s on the honor roll; and she no longer fights with her four siblings the way Max does with Frankie and Duke. But she says she still suffers from Max-esque crises of confidence about being in a “scary business,” in part because she’s been spoiled by Better Things. “When these film and television writers write for us young adults, it makes it seem like we’re all the same, and it kind of sets us up for failure,” Madison says. “We all have our own ideas and ways that we look at the world, just like someone who’s 20 years old as opposed to 15. So I think they just need to take a second glance and not just go the easy way out and write us all the same.” Longtime TV-teen haters concur.